A few weeks ago, I wrote at length about the Houston Astros and their recent cheating scandal. In that article, I articulated my thoughts and feelings about what happened, who was involved, and what the consequences were. However, as additional events have unfolded, I just can’t get over how severe their cheating was and how insufficient their apologies have been.
It’s absolute garbage.
Recapping the events as we currently know them: In 2017, ’18, and ’19, under the direction of then Astro’s bench coach, Álex Cora, the team, led by Carlos Beltrán, conspired to cheat and give their batters the unthinkable advantage of knowing which pitches were about to be thrown. The team utilized a camera angle of the batter’s box to analyze the catcher’s hand signals, decode which signals were for off-speed pitches, and then signal hitters by at least banging on trash cans and at most (suspected, but not confirmed) wearing electronic buzzers under their jerseys.
There’s still speculation about which players were directly involved in the scheme by cheating themselves or indirectly involved by looking the other way. There are unanswered questions about when, where, and for how long aspects of their cheating were implemented. And, the extent of the cheating remains unknown, with each answer seeming to expose several new questions.
So, while each day brings new context to help evaluate this scandal, the information we do have tells a very sad story of both individual competitiveness and desperation to win leading to collective greed and the collapse of a team’s integrity.
It’s a tragically dark and ugly aspect of competitive sports—where one’s natural ability to play a game among the world’s elite either isn’t enough or it was but is now in decline and one’s internal ethical compass might give way to the dark need to sustain relevance and hold back the turning tides of aging.
A generation ago, it was steroids that artificially extended careers and elevated performance past natural levels. This time, it was a video-based sign-stealing process that corrupted the integrity of baseball. And to me, it’s dramatically worse than steroids, because with performance enhancements, it’s an individual player attempting to elevate their ability to succeed, while with sign-stealing, it’s a collective effort to tilt the competitive fairness in one team’s favor through non-player means.
Maybe it’s a fine line, but while steroids corrupt trust in specific players, sign-stealing corrupts trust in the game itself.
I think Dodgers starting pitcher Alex Woods said it best on Twitter: “I would rather face a player that was taking steroids than face a player that knew every pitch that was coming.”
Like I said, absolute garbage.
Most days I’m sad to not be the Commissioner of the MLB, because I love baseball and have ideas about how I could improve the game. But when this news broke, I was very glad to not be sitting where Rob Manfred, the real Commissioner, sits, evaluating the reports he evaluated, determining the appropriate penalties that he determined, and balancing the key interests that he balanced.
Most consequential of those key interests, that he works for the franchise owners, that he has a Players Union CBA negotiation coming up in 2021, and maybe most especially, that he granted immunity to players in exchange for vital information.
In the past weeks, we’ve seen many high-profile players speaking out about the disgrace the Astros brought to the game they love so much. Part of the motivation behind their frustration is that based on the consequences Manfred imposed on the Astros, it feels like the players themselves got away with it. The stripped draft picks, head coach and general manager one-year suspensions, and franchise fine all fail to place accountability on any players who participated and benefitted from their cheating.
Looking at it now, I wish I had been in his place because I would’ve made very different decisions about how to contend with this appalling scandal. Keeping in line with his decision to trade immunity for information—because without that we may not know what we know in the first place—here’s what I think should have happened.
To address the team in general, general manager Jeff Luhnow and team manager AJ Hinch are both suspended, but for five years and banned from the Hall of Fame. The Astros are stripped of their first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021 and pay a $5 million fine for each of the three seasons in question. The Astros officially vacate their 2017 World Series Championship and the team is banned from postseason contention for five years.
To address individual players, each player from the 2017 World Series Championship team returns their playoff rings and any bonus winnings. All stats from the 2017, ’18, and ’19 seasons are permanently erased from players’ individual records and José Altuve vacates his 2017 MVP award. And finally, every player from the 2017 World Series Championship team is banned from future Hall of Fame consideration.
Now, this might appear like overkill, but let’s keep a few contextual things in mind. Pete Rose, one of the greatest baseball players/coaches ever placed a bet on his team to win a game in 1989, which is illegal, and as a consequence, he was banned from baseball (and subsequently the HoF) for life. And in my opinion, the coordinated effort by the Astros to steal signs, helping ensure they won the World Series is so far beyond what Rose did that by comparison, my imagined consequences feel squarely appropriate.
I’ve heard current and former players go on the record and talk about this scandal threatening the integrity of the sport itself, and to me, the answer for that is to set an example of how wrong this was and how serious the consequences are.
As Mariners fans, we must ask what if this was the Mariners who did this. How would we feel? Would losing our GM and coach, some draft picks, and a (laughable) fine make us rethink the value of a World Series championship? Personal ethics aside, I doubt it. I think you’d find many playoff-starved fans who would happily trade those consequences for a championship.
From that perspective, I believe the consequences need to be increased far enough to not just tip the scales back to even, but rather tilt them fully over until an entire fan base openly and loudly rejects a falsely-earned championship because the cost of cheating to achieve it is just too high.
That’s the only way to both atone for this violation of trust in the game and protect it moving forward. The far-reaching and long-lasting effects of the Astros cheating isn’t fully known yet, but the consequences are. And they fall tragically short of appropriate.
It’s absolute garbage.